The Narrow Road to the Interior (Basho 1644 – 1694)

By Hokusai "Basho"

The moon and sun are eternal travelers.
Even the years wander on.
A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years,
every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
From the earliest times there have always been some who perished along the road.
Still I have always been drawn by windblown clouds into dreams of a lifetime of wandering.

Revered to be the greatest Japanese poet, Basho was born in 1644, some 30 miles southeast of Kyoto. He was born Matsuo Kinsaku, but later changed his name to Basho, which means, “Banana Tree” after he was deeply touched when a disciple gave him one as a gift. Throughout his life, Basho was drawn to the solitary path of a wanderer.

a wanderer,
let that be my name-
the first winter rain.

When Basho appeared on the Japanese literary landscape, the haiku form was dying off as a vital literary genre due to the many dry rules governing its expression. Basho sought to revitalize haiku through an accurate communication of the experience of oneness with nature. He believed that this experience was far more important than the strict rules of form. He wrote, “Learn of the pine from the pine; learn of the bamboo from the bamboo.”

Basho wrote in a particular form called Haibun which consisted of short journal prose pieces about travel that were sprinkled lightly with haiku. This fusion of haiku and prose in Habuin provides a dialogue between the poem and the narrative in which each inflects and thereby enriches the other. The Narrow Road to the Interior is Basho’s most famous travel journal haibun collection. Here is an astonishing excerpt:

In Yamagata Province, the ancient temple founded by Jikaku Daishi in 86o, Ryushaku Temple is stone quiet, perfectly tidy. Everyone told us to see it. It meant a few miles extra, doubling back toward Obanazawa to find shelter. Monks at the foot of the mountain offered rooms, then we climbed the ridge to the temple, scrambling up through ancient gnarled pine and oak, gray smooth stones and moss. The temple doors, built on rocks, were bolted. I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open.

Lonely stillness-
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone

The two fundamental principles that underlie Basho’s poetics are kokoru (the heart/mind aspect of the poem) and makoto (sincerity, directness). The direct sincerity and perception of Basho’s writings is an attempt to go right to the heart of things, to see the relationship between core and surface. But this core of reality is not some distant, abstract essence; it is a penetrating insight into things as they are. This insight is summed up by the phrase mono-no-aware, the perception of the natural poignancy of temporal things. Like Basho’s dropping cherry blossoms, we too will wither and die. This insight, crucial to Zen, leads us beyond simple attachment to temporal things, demanding the full experience of the present moment, here and now. Basho’s travelogues, is at once the road of poetry, the road of Zen practice, and the road of life itself. For Basho there is no separation from his poetry and his spiritual practice, all is one.

We paid homage at Gongen Shrine on the fifth. The first shrine on the mountain, it was built by Nojo, no one knows exactly when, The Engi Ceremonies calls it Ushusato Mountain, Feather Province Village Mountain, but calligraphers’ errors got it changed to Feather Black Mountain, The province is called Dewa, Feather Tribute, dating from an eighth-century custom whereby feather down from this region was used as payment of tribute. Together with Moon Mountain and Bath Mountain, Feather Black Mountain completes the Dewa Sanzan, or Three Holy Mountains of Dewa. This temple is Tendai sect, like the one in Edo on Toei Hill. Both follow the doctrine of shikaxaztz, ‘deep-sitting concentration and insight,” a way of enlightenment as transparent as moonlight, its light infinitely increasing, spreading from hermitage to mountaintop and back, reverence and compassion shining in everything it touches. Its blessing flows down from these mountains, enriching all our lives.

Basho by Hokusai
Basho by Hokusai

Basho, who was a dedicated scholar of the Japanese and Chinese literary classics was also inspired by the Buddhist monk poet, Saigyo who believed in co-dependent origination, the Buddhist philosophy that all of nature is fully interdependent. For Basho, to be in perpetual communion with the natural world, and to live from the center of that sense of interconnectedness, was vital, “The first task for each artist is to overcome the barbarian … heart and mind, to become one with nature.”

Through invoking powerfully juxtaposed images of nature, Basho strove to achieve amari-no-kokoro, the state a poem reaches when the heart and soul of a poem leaps at us from a place beyond the words themselves to leave a haunting ‘aftertaste’ in the center of the reader, especially of sabishi (spiritual loneliness):

if I took it in hand,
it would melt in my hot tears-
heavy autumn frost

Or similarly,

All along this road
not a single soul-
only autumn evening

In the tradition of most haiku poets, here is Basho’s final death poem; a sort of closing statement, or final farewell:

sick on a journey-
over parched fields
dreams wander on


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

February 27, 2008 at 7:58 am

[nice; i am a great admirer of basho]

February 26, 2009 at 8:04 am

interested in Basho,
words that describe him
this must be it!

Books « Jarsreply
December 27, 2011 at 1:06 pm

[…] 6. I am a lover of short stories. Mainly because they are short and take no time at all to read or write, which is great for my tiny attention span. This particular short story comes from a post called Wanderlust that I wrote back in fall of 2010 when I was in a World Lit class. This piece that I read by Matsuo Basho is more of a storm (Story/Poem, yes I made up that term just now). It is beautiful and it totally gets me. The Narrow Road of the Interior. […]

February 26, 2012 at 9:42 am

I have been reading “The Narrow Road to the Interior” in three translations. I was looking for more information when I came across this web page. Very lovely, thank you for creating it. I also really like the way the text was translated in your openning passage. Where is it from?


Luke Stormsreply
February 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm
– In reply to: Mike

Hello Mike,

Thank you. The translations come from Matsuo Basho translated by Sam Hamill, Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, Shambhala Sun.

Stella Crewsreply
November 28, 2016 at 9:52 am

I am a poet and try to write haiku, sometimes I succeed but often I forget the elements required. This quick reference is valuable and will eventually bind my internal road to haiku – thanks for posting – Stella

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